Saturday, 7 July 2012

It's Africa, Jim, But Not As We Know It.

There’s a busker in Manchester who plays the kora, sprinkling sweet notes across Piccadilly Gardens, while people bustle past and trams rattle and squeal within inches of his pitch. I like what he plays but have never thrown any coins into his hat because I am inclined to disapprove of his use of powered amplification and find it hard to accept that the instrument, hand-crafted in the ancient tradition from calabash, cowhide and seasoned, native wood, should have its natural voice distorted by the intervention of modern technologies. I listen, by comparison, to a blackbird, perched for much of the day just outside my window, performing unplugged. The natural acoustic of its song rises over the city, mocking the clamour of industry, business and technology.

Nevertheless, despite his amplifier, the busker, a small, grizzled West African, is talented – and intrepid for he plays his foreign tunes, uninvited, in the heart of a city renowned for its own, very different, musical heritage. Yesterday I passed him on my way to a nearby exhibition of West African art and speculated whether he might take his lunch-break at the gallery to sit and reflect nostalgically amongst the cultural artefacts of his homeland, the masks and figures carved from ivory and mahogany which I was on my way to see.

I ought not skim-read things: by doing so I had missed the last word in the exhibition’s title West African Art Today; there were no ivory statuettes. In fact the first thing I encountered was an amplified soundscape recorded on the streets of central Lagos and sounding rather like any other city. Africa has, of course, moved on from where I imagined it to be.

The largest piece on display is a spectacular, multi-coloured, glistening tapestry – not of woven thread but of stitched-together bottle-tops and various other small pieces of coloured metal. It startled me into remembering that my brother and I, as children, curated our own collection of bottle-tops which we treasured for their shiny colours and valued according to their provenance. We kept them in boxes and brought them out to admire, compare and categorise by pattern, condition and rarity. Then we would arrange them in shapes on the floor, often pretending they were tanks or artillery pieces.

In this remembered context El Anatsui’s tapestry is the ultimate display of bottle tops, the ne plus ultra of collections of salvaged materials. In its modern context, however, this work reflects upon a very African state of affairs in which the commercial products of the West have infiltrated a society which is only partly able to assimilate them. Machine made goods have been available since colonists first invaded yet masses of people still cannot afford to buy them and only have access to what is discarded or surplus. Is it surprising that they set a value upon the broken-down appliances, the packaging and other detritus? Maybe they approach these objects, not as we children did, enthralled by the colours, but as adults questioning the wastefulness and looking for ways to redress it. The tapestry is both a curious thing of beauty and an ironic comment on colonialism.

I walked back past the busker who was taking a break, rolling a cigarette from a pack of Old Holborn tobacco. I asked him about his music and where he was from. He told me he came from Gambia and lives here now because he married a Mancunian.
“Do you know about the exhibition down the road?” I asked.
“Oh yes, I am playing some gigs there”.
He pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper and showed me his list of engagement dates. I put some money in his hat and he bowed politely – or was it ironically? Africa is bringing its vibrant, extrovert culture to us and is unabashed about applying our technologies in the process.

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